Eric Kennington's Portraits of the British at War at the RAF Museum, London

By Richard Moss | 13 July 2011
a pastel portrait of an RAF Officer wearing a forage cap
Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC (September 1941)© Courtesy RAF Museum, London
Eric Kennington was one of the few artists to become an official war artist in both world wars, but until recently his was not a name as well known as those of some of his illustrious peers.

Today he is perhaps best renowned for his quietly modernist take on war memorial sculpture, his dramatic rendering of his friend TE Lawrence and for a handful of paintings from the trenches of the First World War.

The son of the painter Thomas Benjamin Kennington, he was born in 1888 and, by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, had already exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Enlisting with the 13th (Kensington) Battalion London Regiment, he fought on the Western Front, but was wounded and discharged as unfit in June 1915.

During his convalescence he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914, a group portrait of his exhausted comrades just out of the line. It remains one of the iconic images of the First World War and its success meant that Kennington returned to the front in 1917 as an official war artist.

a colour pastel portrait of man in RAF officer's uniform
Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Bar. September 1941.© Courtesy of the RAF Museum, London
But it is his sensitive pastel portraits of men and women in uniform from World War Two that are now forcing some to re-appraise this talented artist.

At the Royal Air Force Museum in London, 36 of Kennington’s World War II portraits can be seen in an exhibition which is the first to focus specifically on his Second World War art.

It’s an apt location, as Kennington made many iconic portrait studies of RAF pilots during the Second World War. Many of them were published in the 1942 book, Drawing the RAF, which was followed by Tanks and Tank Folk (1943) and his illustrations for John Brophy’s Britain’s Home Guard (1945).
The exhibition, which is curated by Kennington advocate and expert Jonathan Black of Kingston University, draws on all of these works - with all of the Armed Services represented together with the Auxiliary Services, London Transport and some civilians.

Together these simple but searing portraits capture the indomitable spirit of British and Allied Servicemen in the struggle for victory.
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